A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on August 26, 2012.
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
I Kings 8:1-6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
In the old days of rotary dial telephones landlocked by phone cords, the president of AT&T called his company managers into a large conference room for an emergency meeting. Attendance was mandatory and speculation ran high as to what announcement would be made. Some thought the president was announcing a breakthrough in technology; some were less hopeful and worried he was announcing the downsizing of the company. When all were seated, the president rose, went to the podium and said, “The telephone as we know it no longer exists.”
It was then they noticed that all the phones that had been in the room earlier that morning were now gone. The President repeated what he said once again, “The telephone as we know it no longer exists.” Then he added this explanation, “Your job today is to invent one.”
He divided the managers into small groups and they spent the rest of the afternoon designing a telephone from scratch. Some wanted one with no cord, a phone that could be carried in the car or on the street. Others thought it would be great to know that when another call was coming in you might know who was calling. Some thought how wonderful it would be to forward calls to another number so calls could be received where you were rather than where the phone was? Another imaginative person wanted to only transmit sound but wanted to add something for the eyes: documents, texts and even videos! And on and on they went that day, creating new uses for an old technology.
Imagine now as we’re approaching the church’s sixth decade that we come here one Sunday morning to the corner of 97th & Holmes and much to our shocked dismay, we find a vacant lot where our church buildings once stood. In the middle of the lot that has been scraped down to the dirt, there is a scruffy piece of cardboard tacked to a wooden stake hammered in the ground with this handwritten note; it’s in Hebrew and it’s the same note that’s been left on vacant lots all over town where Christian churches once stood, from elegant cathedrals to tiny storefront churches. Translated, the note reads, “The church you have always known no longer exists; – the walls, the pews, the altar, your set-in-stone beliefs and assumptions. All of it is gone.”
“How can this be?” We ask in abject puzzlement. “How can all we have built be gone?”
In the background, we hear God’s divine laughter and hear God’s unmistakable voice booming: “Given the world the way it is, with its devastating problems and amazing opportunities for joy, given what you know of how Jesus lived in the world, and how human beings are meant to honor the covenant made with God, the real question is, ‘How can your churches NOT be gone?’”
Then God looks upon the whole world and says: “The church you have always known it no longer exists – your job today is to build a new one.”
Modern day prophets like the author of this parable paint a picture of the future that is not very pretty: The church as we know it is sick and it’s dying.
While evangelical and non-denominational churches have grown slightly over the past 20 years (even their growth is minimal), across the board denominations have shown steady declines in membership. According to a recent poll, 87% of Americans declare themselves to be religious, but less than 20% go to church on a weekly basis. Some might say, “Silly boy … I’m a member of a church, but I just don’t take the time to attend. There are so many things I want to do on Sunday.”
Churches may not be getting smaller, just poorly attended. When 100 church members move from attending a practice of attending 3 Sundays out of 4 to attending 2 out of 4, the average attendance figures of that group drops by a third. It’s that simple and that quick. No one left, but the attendance average takes a big hit.
But is church attendance what all the fuss is about? If this issue were just about church attendance, we might then have an idea what the problem is and perhaps we could know what to do about it. But this issue is more complicated than attendance numbers. That’s merely the surface of a much deeper problem.
A man who had survived a terrible shipwreck on a desperately lonely little island was finally found. When rescuers arrived he was ecstatic and grateful. His rescuers noticed his handiwork as he had built an elaborate shelter, exquisite in its details. They asked him about it as they were packing up his meager possessions and he explained this fancy shack was his church. But they noticed off a ways behind this shack a terribly neglected shack that was literally falling in upon itself. “What’s that?” they asked. “Oh, that’s the church I used to attend.”
It has been said by many that in 50-100 years Christian churches in America will be like many of the churches in Europe today – kept open during the week as tourist attractions or museums, but locked and empty on Sunday mornings.
There is no shortage of reasons given for the decline in church membership:
- Some cite the tendency for mainline churches to cling to language, music, and traditions that are out of step with the times and which no longer speak to the people of today.
- Others blame the current cultural preference for individualistic forms of religion that emphasize self-help and prosperity messages, while downplaying the social justice and politicized teachings of the Gospels.
- One obvious indicator that change is occurring, is the steady loss of young adults, many of whom say they are disillusioned with the hypocrisy of Christians who profess to love thy neighbor on Sunday, while doing everything they can to exclude their neighbor on Monday.
Yet despite efforts to modernize worship services with rock bands and power point presentations, and the push to emulate mega-churches by offering coffee shops and book stores, fitness centers and movie theatres; church membership rolls continue to shrink. For most doomsayers, changing the design of our church buildings or our style of worship is tantamount to arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It doesn’t matter how we change the scenery – the ship is still going down and there is nothing we can do to prevent it.
Interesting, the prophetic voices tell us that we shouldn’t try to prevent it. Like the AT&T executives in our opening story, we shouldn’t be asking ourselves, how do we save our old church, but rather we should be asking: “What kind of church will we build in its place?”
Now to our text: The image of King Solomon standing on the portal of his grand monument to God on the morning they dedicated the Temple has been on my mind all week. It was the vision of his father David that inspired Solomon to complete the Temple as a permanent house where God would reside. Solomon took his father’s vision and had the power and the conviction to make it happen and it was glorious. Solomon understood this compulsion to “build something for God” would stand long after his life and of whom people would remember as a visionary leader.
History tells us it occupied three quarters of a square mile, and cost over a billion dollars in today’s currency to build, and yet, not one piece of it survives to this day. Most archaeologists agree most of it was plundered before it was destroyed in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar. After their return from exile, the beleaguered Israelites began the slow work of rebuilding, but the second Temple never achieved the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple.
Interestingly though, today’s text is a part of the larger group of scriptures that have come to be known as the collective writings of a group of historians commissioned to tell the history of their people while they were still huddled in exile. That’s not hard for us to imagine: The severity of the exile made them hunger & thirst for the glory of their past; the need for a consistent history clear because of what they had lost and how they had suffered.
Maybe the words of this prayer and Solomon’s sermon preached on that auspicious day was remembered in exile by a people who had lost their land, their holy city, and had seen their precious memories of the throne of God go down in ashes and utter destruction. They needed to remember they were the people of God and that they had a wonderful life in their own land until they had given themselves to outside deities and had let the uniqueness of being God’s children make them lazy and spoiled. Maybe this part of their history had added meaning knowing they were remembering this important day like prisoners remembering their best days in freedom.
That’s our task today … to remember God lives among us and has an untouchable place of reverence. Obviously we don’t attach the same meanings and holy reverence to our Sanctuary that the Jews did to Solomon’s Temple, but symbolically we still understand this is the place where God meets with the gathered believers who are here to worship. Gathered in this room where so many times the presence of God has been sensed, we need to remember God is truly with us and among us as the people of God.
Maybe it’s important to remember God is with us not because of this place, but because of these people. For you see, we are the church … the church is not this building. It’s one of our earliest lessons as people of faith: That this building is just the place where we meet because God lives in each one of us … inside our hearts and souls. But at the same time we claim these buildings to be our church buildings; it’s hard not to recognize it’s still more than just a place.
I love that old prayer adapted from a simple prayer of St. Patrick that is occasionally heard in churches even today as a benediction following worship:
May the Lord Christ … Walk ahead of you to prepare & plan your way,
May the Lord Christ … Walk beside you, companion on your journey as you go,
May the Lord Christ … Be under you, to support & sustain you when you fall, for you & I will,
May the Lord Christ … Walk behind you, to complete & finish what you leave undone,
May the Lord Christ … Be within you, to give you peace & comfort on the journey,
But above all… may the Lord Christ be over you, watching, calling & guiding,
challenging you now & forever more
It’s a fitting way to end worship because it reminds us no matter where we are, God is with us, in the Temple of our hearts. No matter whether we feel we are in exile for having forgotten who we are, God is with us. No matter whether we are aware of God’s presence at all, God is with us. In every way and in every circumstance, God is with God’s children, wanting to shower them with grace and forgiveness and the power to continue even under the direst circumstances. For the presence of God among us is the symbol of heaven reaching down and touching earth … a place where the people of God and anyone who feels like an outsider to God’s love are welcome!
 Chuck Myer, Dying Church, Living God: A Call to Begin Again, Northstone Publishing : Kelowna, British Columbia , 2000, 37-39
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).